A very, very early draft of the first few lines of the first chapter of this introductory submission thing. 

It is not exactly controversial to say that journalism is as capable of doing harm as it is of doing good. Indeed, it is essentially impossible for a conscientious journalist to avoid doing harm; as Beauchamp and Klaidman[1] point out, the disappointed theatre critic harms “the author of the play, the actors, the director, producer, investors, and many others connected with the production”, yet we would not wish him to lie about the play to avoid this harm. The ethical journalist, surely, is one who honestly weighs up both the potential for harm and the potential for benefit of whichever story he or she is writing and proceeds only if the good is likely to outweigh the harm. 

Of course the terms “good” and “harm” are loaded with meanings that need unpacking. For a start, it is worth asking: what is good, and good to whom? After all, the recent story in the Sun regarding a sighting of a great white shark off the coast of Cornwall[2] certainly did good for the proprietor of the Sun – sales of the paper that day skyrocketed – despite the picture upon which the story was based being exposed as a hoax within days (it was in fact taken in South Africa). Does that qualify as a “good” that the ethical journalist should weigh against the potential harm of needlessly scaring people away from Cornish beaches? Few would say so; the Sun’s continued lack of apology or even acknowledgement by the time of writing (27th August 2007) is inappropriate. 

Our understanding of what “good” is from a journalist’s perspective hinges upon what our understanding of a journalist’s role is. Is a journalist an entertainer, a public defender, a teller of stories? Belsey and Chadwick[3] suggest the following: 

Journalism… has an honourable aim, the circulation of information, including news, comment and opinion. This is an honourable aim because the health of a [democratic] community… depends on it. There is no reason why journalism should not have further aims as well, such as entertainment, so long as these are subordinated to the overall aim of the circulation of information. 

This seems a fair assessment. Newspapers are allowed to have cartoons, as long as the cartoons do not distract from or supersede the newspaper’s main purpose of providing the public with information. If this is their main purpose, then surely its achievement is the main criterion by which we shall measure their success – so the good for which a newspaper strives is the provision of information, and the intended recipient of that good must always be the public. There is no problem if in the dissemination of this information the proprietors grow rich or the journalist makes a name for himself as a talented and hard-working writer; however, these goods do not act as counterweights to any harm a story may cause. 

The possible victims of “harm” must be a wider group – the journalist cannot worry solely about the general public, although they must be considered, but also about the subjects of the piece, as well as any sources he or she may have consulted. If the journalist values their job, they would also do well to consider their proprietor’s and any advertiser’s interests as well; this could be considered an ethical consideration (it is hardly ethical to bite the hand that feeds), but most would probably think it secondary to the others. We saw above that a story’s sensational appeal (sharks in Cornwall, for instance) does not compensate for its inaccuracy, no matter how many papers it sells. 

Similarly the definition of what constitutes harm is not as narrow as that of good. A newspaper only has one chief good it can strive for, the purveyance of information, but it has many ways in which it can hurt. A good common-sense definition of harm is found in Feinberg[4]: 

One person harms another… by invading, and thereby thwarting or setting back, his interest. The test… of whether such an invasion has in fact set back an interest is whether that interest is in a worse condition than it would otherwise have been in had the invasion not occurred at all… 

Feinberg rightly points out that not all harm is unjustified – the unswerving honesty of the sports correspondent’s appraisal of a poor performance by an athlete, for instance, may harm that athlete’s career – but it is still harm. 

How then does all of this apply to science journalism? In one sense it applies in exactly the same way. It is the job of the ethical science journalist to weigh up the harms and benefits that a story may cause before running it, just as much as it is the job of his colleagues on the news, sports and arts desks; it is still the public to whom he owes his primary loyalty, and that loyalty is still expressed through the honest dissemination of information. However, a key difference is that their potential for doing harm is, compared to most of their colleagues, generally confined to the general public. This is not uniformly true: a key researcher in a story could be wounded by allegations of sloppiness or unethical behaviour, or the source of prematurely leaked research might be hurt were their anonymity not protected; but on the whole, the subjects of science stories are concepts, theories or groups rather than individuals, and the sources tend to be press releases or named individuals rather than anonymous whistleblowers. 

How might this harm to the public manifest itself? To refer back to the shark story mentioned above, the harm it might theoretically cause is obvious – people who have paid to go on holiday by the sea could be too scared of jagged-toothed death from below to go in the water. On Feinberg’s definition, the holidaymakers’ “interests” of rest and relaxation have been thwarted by the story; and if it leads to a drop in tourism, then the financial interests of local industry have suffered too. 

An analogous case in science journalism might be a health scare. The MRSA bacterium has made headlines several times over the past few years, including several undercover “stings” by tabloid newspapers that purported to find dangerous levels of the antibiotic-resistant “superbug” in all sorts of worrying places – notably on a cleaner’s broom-handle[5]. Whether or not this story was true, if it worried people into not going in to hospital, or if it makes their stay in hospital more stressful due to worry, it has harmed their interests; the question is whether the information it disseminated was accurate and worthwhile. As it turned out, while MRSA itself is a serious issue, all of these “stings” were based on highly dubious foundations; but that is a separate point. In the MRSA case, it could be suggested that the misleading information given causes actual physical harm as well as harm to “interests” – after all, a missed hospital appointment is unlikely to be good for health. It is my belief that this is a risk with many scientific stories – for example, the media controversy over the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was simultaneous to a drop in vaccination levels in Britain from a 1995/96 high of 92% to a mere 80% in 2003/04, and as low as 62% in some parts of south-east London[6], which was in turn linked to the first measles death in Britain for over a decade – it seems implausible at best to suggest that the media coverage was not a factor. That said, it is notoriously hard to prove the effects of media on behaviour. For our purposes, it is enough to say that people’s interests include an ability to make informed decisions, and that ability is weakened through the provision of misinformation. 

I intend to pursue this investigation through a series of case studies, each examining a single article on a scientific topic in a national newspaper and using them to raise issues that are particular to scientific stories. These articles are:  

1)      “New health fears over big surge in autism” (Duncan Campbell, The Observer, 8th July 2007), an article claiming that new research has shown a dramatic rise in British autism cases and suggesting that the authors of the research believed it to be due to the MMR vaccine

2)      “Warming is down to sun, says Irish prof” (Lisa O’Connor, The Sunday Mirror (Eire Edition), 18th March 2007), an article reporting that a former professor of electronic engineering at University College Dublin denies a link between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and global warming 

3)      “My war on electrosmog: Julia Stephenson sets out to clear the airwaves” (Julia Stephenson, The Independent, 31st May 2007, an article in which the author details her own experience of physical symptoms apparently caused by radiation from her wireless internet router. 

None of these articles are impeccable from the point of view of journalistic ethics. The Observer article misrepresents the views of two of the researchers, and fails to mention a significant competing interest on the part of a third. The Mirror’s piece fails to provide any balance to the story, leaving any reader without prior knowledge to believe that the professor’s views are a sole authority. The Independent is similarly silent on the large body of research carried out into “electrosensitivity” and “electrosmog” which often contradicts the author’s angle. However, these problems – of misrepresentation and balance – could apply to any journalism, not just science coverage. What I intend to concentrate on are more specific concerns, namely: the use of unpublished research; individual and “expert” opinions, and their newsworthiness; and anecdotal evidence.

[1] Stephen Klaidman and Tom L Beauchamp, The Virtuous Journalist, New York: Oxford University Press 1987; p93

[2]Shark is spotted off Cornwall”, John Coles and Alastair Taylor, The Sun, 28th July 2007

[3] Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media, ed. Andrew Bolsey and Ruth Chadwick, Routledge, 1992: Chp. 1, Ethics and politics of the media – the quest for quality, by the editors, p1

[4] Joel Feinberg, Harm to Others, New York: Oxford University Press 1984; pp 34 – 35

[5] “The Mop of Death”, The Sunday Mirror, 29 August 2004

[6] “MMR crisis could spark measles epidemic”, The Daily Telegraph, 23rd September 2004


If Frost’s book (and Karen Sanders, and the Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media one) is anything to go by, there seems to be something of a gap in the literature regarding the issues that particularly apply to science journalism.

The first is that of the possibility of harm to the public through affecting their opinions and thus their behaviour – I have to say “possibility” because the effect of the media on behaviour is unproven, but it is widely assumed. In fact it could be argued that the libel laws imply it; if people’s behaviour towards an individual was unchanged by defamatory comments, then there would be no “damages” to award. Another obvious example includes Rebekah Wade’s paedophilia campaign at the News of the World; unless someone is willing to suggest that gangs of mobs would have burned down a paediatrician anyway, then that is a clear-cut case of behavioural change caused by press coverage. More relevantly there is also some research which suggests it – e.g. NKZ thing, plus the following about AIDS:

Social policy, the media and misrepresentation

Ed. Bob Franklin, Routledge 1999

Chapter 4 – “Dying of ignorance? Journalists, news sources and the media reporting of HIV/AIDS”, Kevin Williams

P82 – 83

“The media played an important role in shaping the development of AIDS policy, especially in creating a climate of opinion which demanded government action…

…the media are an integral part of the struggle to make policy”.

The media’s ability to affect policy is implicitly assumed everywhere – see Alastair Campbell – and it only affects policy if it affects, or is seen to affect, public opinion. It is then very hard to see how public opinion can be affected without some effect on public behaviour (think of comments like “gay plague” in the press re AIDS) and from there it is a short step to public health and/or wellbeing. It can’t be proved, perhaps, that the press affects behaviour, but there is a strong suggestion that it does; certainly the press act as though they believe it does. And if they believe they do, then they surely have an ethical duty to act in such a way as to be beneficial, or at least non-harmful, to that wellbeing.

The second issue that is lacking in the literature is that of the increased difficulty in science reporting of ensuring that the reader is not misled. As shown above, the usual ways a reader can gauge the reliability of a story (check against knowledge, check against sources) do not apply as strongly when you lack the knowledge itself and the skills to examine the sources; and, as I have previously considered, a lay reader could easily take away a message of “ongoing controversy” from an article that to an expert in the field might clearly speak of a closed debate.

My research must therefore consider how a journalist sidesteps or minimises these concerns. Are there cases when apparently important scientific stories should simply be ignored, as they might put the public at risk? Should they go ahead, with sufficient caveats? What can be considered “sufficient” in that situation?

Key points in journalism ethics


The public’s right to know, essential for the political process in a democratic society (and, some might suggest, a good in itself)

Newsworthiness – what does this entail? Frost’s suggestion – topicality and “what interests the reader”. Seems wildly inadequate; lots of things interest the reader without being newsworthy, surely? I want to lump it in with the right to know.

Responsibility to the reader


How do these apply to science journalism?

Privacy – not uniquely relevant to science journalism. Shouldn’t print animal researcher’s addresses, but then probably shouldn’t print anyone’s address.

Public’s right to know – important not just from the point of view of democracy (although that is also important; policymaking on e.g. climate change, MMR/autism, AIDS, stem cell research, animal testing – everything really – is influenced by public opinion, and, one assumes, public opinion is influenced by the media), but because the public’s response to certain scientific issues will directly affect their wellbeing or that of others. It could be said to be important that the public knew about BSE/CJD, for example.

KEY QUESTION: What do the public have a right to know in science journalism?

Newsworthiness – when should research count as newsworthy? Presumably this is connected to the public’s right to know. If something is entertaining or sensational, it could be newsworthy, but only if the public has a right to know it, or at least no-one has a right to keep it concealed. Presumably for a science journalist a story like “new Earth-like planet discovered in distant solar system” is newsworthy, even if the public don’t have a right to know per se. “Public’s right to know” presumably covers similar ground to “the public interest” – see PCC report. With science journalism, this could be tricky. Usually the problem is going to be new research and opinions. What criteria should be used to determine when research becomes news? At what stage does the public interest/right to know permit premature coverage? Also – whose opinion can be considered newsworthy? “Scientist,” “academic”, “professor”? E.g. Observer again – publishing (and, of course, getting wrong) story on Cambridge autism research before it was published, claiming that two “key researchers” believed MMR involved in increase; is that acceptable (or rather would it have been acceptable if the opinions expressed had been accurate)?

KEY QUESTION: When if ever should unpublished research and personal opinions form science stories?

Responsibility to the reader – what does this responsibility consist in? A responsibility, obviously, to provide what the public have a right to; and a duty to provide timely and truthful information. Is there in any sense also a duty to protect them? Use NotW paedophilia thing as an example. Let us assume for the moment that the public had a right to know where neighbourhood paedophiles lived; therefore the NotW had a duty to provide that information. Is there also a duty to protect those members of the public – both the paedophiles themselves and those caught in the “crossfire” – from the consequences of that information being made public? By analogy; assuming there is a duty to provide the public with the information that some doctors believed MMR to cause autism, is there also a duty on the part of the journalist to protect the public from the consequences of not using MMR? How would one discharge such a duty?

KEY QUESTIONS: Do the media ever have a duty to protect the public from the effects of information; even truthful information? How should this duty be carried out while avoiding censorship?

Truthfulness/accuracy/impartiality/objectivity/balance – are there levels of truthfulness? It is true, for example, that David Bellamy claimed in 2006 that he didn’t believe that climate change was dangerous or man-made; but is it “truthful” to report that as a standalone fact, or is it misleading the readership by leaving out the point that he is pretty much alone among scientists in his belief?

Is balance always a good thing? As Frost points out, if we were reporting on child abuse, we wouldn’t interview a child abuser as “balance” for the social workers and policemen in an effort to make the report even-handed. Is it analogous in science to bring in rare contrarians as a “balance” to the scientists representing the majority position? If there is a minority claiming that their viewpoint is backed by the science (which they will), what steps (if any) should a journalist take to make decisions for him- or herself on the evidence? Should science journalists in fact be scientifically trained? If not who should they trust? A point should be made that the scientists (or advocates of a certain scientific position) journalists most often come across will often be vocal rather than trustworthy – see Frost’s section on internet creationists, which he doesn’t seem to extrapolate to the media in general.

KEY QUESTIONS: Does “truthfulness” imply more than simply reporting the truth? Is it acceptable to give one-sided accounts of science stories if the dissenting view is in a small minority? Should journalists have a background in science?

The Key Questions revisited

KEY QUESTION: What do the public have a right to know in science journalism?

Possible answers: things that affect or are likely to affect their health; things that are likely to affect humanity; things that are likely to affect their lifestyle; advances for the human race; controversial ethical issues.

KEY QUESTION: When if ever should 1) unpublished research and 2) personal opinions form science stories?

Possible answers: 1) on subjects covered by “right to know”, above; when research is reputable and near completion (then why not wait for it to be completed? Avoid scooping?); when researchers issue pre-publication press release (should this be acceptable? Does this just lay the responsibility on the researchers, or does the journalist still have a duty to check it thoroughly?); when pre-publication information is leaked by a researcher

2) Again, when covered by “right to know”; when the source is reputable and expert in the specific relevant field, rather than in “science”.

KEY QUESTIONS: 1) Do the media ever have a duty to protect the public from the effects of information; even truthful information? 2) How should this duty be carried out while avoiding censorship?

Possible answers: 1) yes; no; maybe. Presumably there is some duty not to shout fire in a crowded theatre; NotW thing pretty uncomplicatedly wrong, I expect. But where is the line? Is printing an article detailing which speed cameras don’t have film a dereliction of duty?

2) through providing sufficient further information around it to allow the reader to make informed decisions on the risks themselves. Further question raised; what is “sufficient information”, and can lay readers ever make informed risk-analysis decisions on highly specialist subjects?

KEY QUESTIONS: 1) Does “truthfulness” imply more than simply reporting the truth? 2) Is it acceptable to give one-sided accounts of science stories if the dissenting view is in a small minority? 3) Should journalists have a background in science?

Possible answers: 1) yes; as suggested in duty/censorship, background is vital. How much, though?

2) yes; no; maybe. Presumably we wouldn’t expect the flat-Earth society represented in all reports on gap year kids on round-the-world trips. To take the other point of view (as so many do), Galileo was a minority.

3) yes; no; maybe. It would be the ideal if they all did, but would it automatically mean a reduction in science coverage if there weren’t enough of them to go around, or if newspapers felt unable to afford their wages? Furthermore, what does a “background in science” mean – a BSc, or a chemistry O-level? In-house training?


PCC Code of Practice:


Long, in-depth piece covering the following headings:


  • Accuracy
  • Opportunity to reply
  • Privacy
  • Harassment
  • Intrusion into grief or shock
  • Children
  • Children in sex cases
  • Listening devices
  • Hospitals
  • Innocent relatives and friends
  • Misrepresentation
  • Victims of sexual assault
  • Discrimination
  • Financial journalism
  • Confidential sources
  • Payment for articles
  • The public interest


Interestingly, and importantly, nothing on “public health” except as a definition of public interest, meaning that it is excusable to override one or more of the other clauses if it will get you a story of relevance to public health. No suggestion that public wellbeing might be affected by the story itself.


NUJ Code of Conduct


13-point code, in which the effects on the readership are completely ignored. A section on “harmful inaccuracies” refers to libel, i.e. harmful to the subject of the story rather than the readers.

A few relevant bits from books on media ethics:

Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media, ed. Andrew Bolsey and Ruth Chadwick
Routledge, 1992

Chp. 1, Ethics and politics of the media – the quest for quality
By the editors

Aims of journalism (p1)

Journalism… has an honourable aim, the circulation of information, including news, comment and opinion. This is an honourable aim because the health of a [democratic] community… depends on it. There is no reason why journalism should not have further aims as well, such as entertainment, so long as these are subordinated to the overall aim of the circulation of information.

What is a “free press?” (p5)

Is it the freedom of editors to decide what gets broadcast or published? Is it the freedom of journalists to offer fact and opinion without fear of sanction or persecution? Or is it the freedom of ordinary people to receive full and fair information on all issues that are likely to affect their lives and their interests?

What might constitute a “code of conduct” in journalism?(p10/11)

Authors suggest: rights-based; although this would then entail establishing a hierarchy of rights. For example, if people have a right not to be deceived, but also a right not to be defrauded, then in a situation when exposing the fraudulent dealings of, say, a politician requires deception by journalists, whose right takes precedent? That of the politician, or those of the constituents he is defrauding?

Another suggestion: “maximis[ing] the satisfaction of the interests of those to whom the conduct is directed” – i.e. the readership.

Or a third: “anchor[ing] the conduct in a virtuous character, one that for journalists would exhibit specific virtues such as fairness, truthfulness, trustworthiness and non-malevolence.” Is this basic enough? Surely in defining what virtues a journalist should have, you’re really just listing the ways in which s/he should behave? Is it then just a code of conduct at one remove?

Any code of conduct for journalists is divisible in to two “broad aspects” (p12), “input” and “output”. Outpu is that which reaches the public – articles, reports, programmes etc – while input is the “day-to-day practice” of journalism; research, newsgathering, whatever. Belsey and Chadwick suggest “truthfulness” as fundamental virtue for output (while recognising problematic nature of truthfulness – requires selectiveness) and “honesty” as fundamental to input (although not always overriding).

My thoughs – should some recognition of public good not be present in “output”, at least as a guide to what bits of what is “true” should be printed?

Chapter 5 – Codes of conduct for journalists
Nigel G E Harris


[Areas where as yet no codes give guidance include] advice columns… ranging over health, personal relationships, gardening, travel and financial matters. Some are written by professional journalists, but others are obtained from “expert” contributors…

…editors should be seen as taking responsibility for ensuring that the person giving the advice is appropriately qualified. Where advice is given on matters which could affect people’s wellbeing, press codes could require conformity to the practices of giving the status of the advice provider and recommending readers to obtain an independent professional opinion before acting on the advice.


Author lists 3 direct beneficiaries of codes of conduct:

  • Readership (through clauses stressing requirements of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity etc)
  • Sources (through confidentiality clauses and similar)
  • Investigatees (through privacy and harrassment clauses)


Author suggests that a risk of having strictly enforceable codes of conduct (perhaps analogous to the possibility of getting “struck off” a la GMC) would be the possibility of powerful investigatees (politicians or oligarchs, perhaps) putting pressure on the professional body to have the journalists investigating their wrongdoings sanctioned.

p69 – Reader’s interests

“Reporters may be required to give the truth; to write accurately and objectively; to avoid distortion, selection or misrepresentation of the facts; to avoid bias or partiality; to refrain from conjecture or the passing off of opinion as fact”

For more codes of conduct see: J C Jones, Mass Media Codes of Ethics and Councils, Paris, Unesco

British codes of conduct include the National Union of Journalists, the Newspaper Publishers Association, the PCC, Broadcasting Standards Council, and the Institute of Journalists

Chapter 8: Objectivity, Bias and Truth
Andrew Edgar

This chapter is so stuffed with clever-clever postmodernist bullshit about the impossibility of objectivity and “the social event as freely interpretable text”, such as might be written by a first-year philosophy undergraduate who’s just heard of Derrida, that it can be safely ignored in all its pompous, wilfully obscure entirety. Plus he uses the word “plurivocity”, for fuck’s sake. A disgrace.

May 2, 2007

Part ninety-four in slightly obscure notes to self: not sure if this is ludicrously obvious – it generally is when something strikes me as utterly profound – but it seems that a large part of the ethical work of journalists in this field will be deciding what is newsworthy. To give two extremes – IPCC report newsworthy, David Bellamy’s unfounded burblings probably not. What are criteria? Authority, public interest I suppose.

Not remotely profound, but there you go.

More on Controversy

January 9, 2007

More specific questions:

How should we define a scientific controversy? Working definition – where two mutually exclusive explanations are being proposed for a single phenomenon (perhaps “Autism caused by MMR”, or “autism NOT caused by MMR”). Should we narrow it down to “by researchers in the field”?

Obviously this means almost everything is a controversy to a greater or lesser extent. How do we determine this extent within the scientific debate on the topic? Possibility: for MMR/autism, PubMed search for MMR/autism in the BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, say, and see year-by-year how many articles continue to admit possibility of a link. Am limiting only to the very large and reputable scientific journals – is this appropriate? Does all significant research make it into them eventually? Ask.

To what extent is the level of controversy within the scientific debate reflected in the public arena? Are there common factors determining which scientific controversies get picked up in the popular press? How would we establish such a reflection? One possibility – check whether the number of articles on a topic in the reputable peer-reviewed journals corresponds to the number of articles in the popular press, and also whether the tone and balance corresponds. So for MMR/autism: PubMed search for MMR/autism in the BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, say, and see year-by-year how many articles continue to admit possibility of a link; compare with similar search on LexisNexis or something. Comparison both of NUMBER/FREQUENCY of articles and PERCENTAGE SUGGESTING LINK. Need comparable system for other controversies. In event of the two corresponding less than we might expect, attempt to show factors; preferably common factors between examples.

Are there any examples of “major” (term will need defining) controversies that don’t get picked up by the popular press? Am thinking continental drift and tectonic plate theory, but will need to check. Why don’t they?

How should the balance of a debate be represented in print?

When is it appropriate for mainstream journalism to report on controversy within the sci community? E.g. if a small piece of research suggests a public health risk might exist but doesn’t confirm anything, should the journalist await further confirmation by research or is it more responsible to publish straightaway? Does the level of possible “scariness” (would like a better word than that) affect that decision – i.e. does the increased possible public interest necessitate lower threshold of “publishability” (and again) or does the greater risk of public panic have the reverse effect? How does one determine all of this?

Must remain aware that this is at heart an ETHICAL investigation, not social science, science or media studies.

 So – will need to include chapter(s) on ethical theories. Following Karen Sanders (Ethics and Journalism, Sage Publications, 2003), the broad divisions are:

1. Deontological
Kant, based on duty – think categorical imperatives, thou-shalt-not-kill, the Golden Rule

2. Consequentialist/utilitarian 
Bentham, Mill, Locke; based on consequences for human happiness

3. “Virtue ethics”
Aristotelian – seems to be broadly deontological but centred around an idea of meeting each scenario with a question of “what would the virtuous person do?”. This appeals to various virtues – courage, prudence, justice etc; at first glance seems to be in danger of circular reasoning: “what is a moral act?” – “moral acts are those which a virtuous person would perform” – “who is a virtuous person?” – “a person who acts morally” etc, but this will need more looking into.

4. Rights-based ethics: I am free to act as I wish as long as I don’t interfere with other people’s rights (how defined is the question).

Having done so a discussion of which approach (or more likely which combination of approaches – utilitarianism in purest form flawed by “scapegoating”, deontological by somewhat unfeeling disregard for human consequences) is best suited for application to journalism. What particular moral touchstones are there for journalists? This is obviously going to be a major theme, but I’ll jot down ideas here as I go.

My original proposal

October 11, 2006

Research Proposal
The Ethical Responsibility of the Media in Reporting Medical Stories

I propose to research the nature of journalists’ duties in reporting medical stories. In brief, my proposal shall take the following form:1.First, an examination of the ethical duties of journalists. First, it seems clear that they have a duty not to publish stories that will harm individuals or the public in general. Second, they have a duty to seek out and publish stories in the public interest. What should they do when these duties contradict each other? 2. In this context, I intend to look at the difficulties specific to reporting on medical stories – first, the difficulty of establishing scientific “truth”, especially on contested topics; second, the specialist knowledge required to interpret evidence in medicine, which will make it hard if not impossible for journalists to determine for themselves what is in the public interest for themselves; third, the risks to public health of causing health scares. Having done this, I hope to establish what duties journalists have in terms of avoiding or mitigating these difficulties.

3.Second, having – hopefully – established a moral standard for journalists in reporting medical stories, I shall propose discussing several of those stories in turn and how they were covered by various news outlets, to see whether the moral standard is achieved. As an example, I shall briefly outline what strikes me as a clear-cut moral failure by sections of the British media – the undercover stings by various tabloids into MRSA infestation in hospitals.

The philosophical disciplines involved in this project will include ethical philosophy, particularly media and medical ethics, as well as the philosophy of science and epistemology. It will also involve a great deal of study of newspaper archives and television news transcripts. 

It seems uncontroversial to say that journalists have a responsibility to the public. Just as there are limits to free speech in everyday life – the usual example is shouting “fire” in a crowded cinema – so there are limits to what can be printed or broadcast. These limits may involve harm to individuals or their reputations – slander and libel, for example, or the invasion of privacy – or risks to the public in general, perhaps through spreading panic or inciting violence. However, journalists are also supposed to find hidden truths and bring them into the open. Presumably they have a responsibility to uncover those stories that are in the public interest. Ethical journalism, then, presumably involves finding a balance between these two, often contradictory, demands. What is the ideal? It could be argued that journalists must aim for “fairness” or “responsibility” in reporting, but this either begs the question (“you have a responsibility to avoid irresponsibility”) or merely shifts the question back a yard – if fairness is the goal, what is fairness? I hope to answer these questions in the first part of my research.

Having – hopefully – established a working model for journalistic ethics in general, I intend to look at the problems specific to medical stories. First, the idea of “uncovering hidden truths” is problematic. Whatever public opinion may hold, science is not about certainty and the phrases “scientific fact” and “scientifically proven” are less rock-solid than is widely believed. Popper’s famous “black swan” shows that, however many positive examples one can produce, it is impossible to once-and-for-all prove a universal statement, such as “all swans are white”[1], as a single negative counter-example can always disprove it. There are many scientific theories that are now taken to be proven; but even the most hallowed, like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, would be overturned by one replicable experiment that undeniably contradicted them; in the case of the Second Law, by showing heat flowing from a warmer body to a cooler one.

Of course, it is arguable that this is a problem for all journalism and indeed all of human knowledge – Descartes’ “evil daemon[2]” thought experiment shows how difficult a concept certainty is. However, the problem is exacerbated in medical stories, as the knowledge required to evaluate the evidence is likely to be highly specialist and, as a rule, journalists will be unlikely to possess that knowledge.

This leads to a problem – if the journalists themselves aren’t adequate judges of the evidence, how should they go about determining whether to run a story or not? Dr Ben Goldacre, who writes the campaigning “Bad Science” articles in The Guardian, has the following suggestion:

“…if you don’t get it then you have only two choices: you can either learn to interpret data yourself and come to your own informed conclusions; or you decide who to trust[3]

The difficulty, of course, is making that decision. It simply isn’t going to be practical for journalists to re-educate themselves in every specialist topic they write about. But who should they trust to make the interpretations for them? Sometimes the scientific community will be divided over an issue that is of great public interest; what should a responsible journalist do? After all, consensus is almost as rare a thing in science as certainty: 

“As long as there is some uncertainty, a few dissenting voices will persist. These contradictions, although they are wrong most of the time, are valuable because they force a continual re-examination of scientific methods and results. On a few rare occasions, they are even right

What weight should journalists give to minority voices in medical stories? Herein lies another problem that is particularly evident in medical stories: the risk of causing public panic. If – as in, for example, the MMR vaccine/autism controversy – there is a small but highly vocal minority of health professionals declaring something unsafe while the large majority disagree, is it right to provide publicity to the dissenters? After all, as Goldacre rightly points out, “Health scares are like toothpaste: they’re easy to squeeze out, but very difficult to get back in the tube.[5]” And in the example of MMR, the health scare – almost universally discredited, it seems, by reputable medical professionals – has led to a drop in British vaccination levels from a 1995/96 high of 92% to a mere 80% in 2003/04[6] – and indeed falling as low as 62% in south-east London. This has created a very serious risk of a measles epidemic. Was it really ethically responsible of, for example, The Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips to be stating in a national newspaper that “the idea that MMR was always safe is demonstrable nonsense[7]” in 2005? This was, after all, nearly five years after a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded:

  • available evidence does not support the hypothesis that MMR vaccine causes autism or associated disorders, nor does it cause IBD [inflammatory bowel disease];
  • separate administration of components of the vaccine would provide no benefit and would result in delayed or missed immunisation. [8]

    The final and, I anticipate, largest section of the research would involve examining a variety of medical stories in the national media and determining which, if any, outlets failed to meet the standards of responsibility that we will have established.

    Stories would include the abovementioned MMR vaccine scare, recent concerns over the so-called “superbug” MRSA being found in British hospitals, avian influenza and its apparent confusion in the British media with the anticipated flu epidemic in the winter of 2005/06 which led to flu vaccine shortages, the “3rd-generation” oral contraceptive pill and its links with an increased risk of embolic thrombocytaemia, and others. I envisage each story having a chapter devoted to it, subdivided into tabloid, broadsheet and broadcast media.

    Each of these stories will require a large amount of research, and so it is impractical to go into each one in much detail here. I will, instead, focus on what seems to me to be a fairly clear-cut example of ethical failure on the part of several media outlets as a taster. In August 2004, the Sunday Mirror ran a story called “The Mop of Death”, declaring that “One mop we tested was infested with 300 TIMES the safe limit of the superbug MRSA”. All the other major tabloids ran with similar stories, each revealing dangerous levels of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – to give it its full name – in one hospital or another.

    These were truly alarming results, and understandably there were considerable column inches given over to the topic. However, all was not as it seemed. It turns out that all the positive results used in the above stories came from a single laboratory. I hand over to Dr Goldacre once again:

    “…a small unaccredited laboratory in Northants called Chemsol, run by a man with a non-accredited correspondence-course PhD and no formal microbiology training, and he seems to find MRSA in hospitals where other accredited labs, in universities and the like, cannot. And, weirdly, almost every undercover tabloid journalist who gets an “MRSA hospital scandal” scoop involving positive swabs seems to have used this Chemsol operation. I include the Evening Standard, the Mail, the Sun, and of course the Mirror, for their fantastic “Mop Of Death” story[10].”

    He continues to say that after some years of trying – including questions being asked in Parliament – UCL microbiologists were sent eight of the samples from which Chemsol got positive MRSA results. Six were found to be negative – both for live bacteria and the PCR “DNA fingerprinting” which would allow the testers to find dead ones – and the other two contained a strain of MRSA which had never been seen before outside Australia. Chemsol, incidentally, also performed tests for Australian media outlets, so the probability of cross-contamination was high. More than this, Chemsol’s main source of income was the sale of “Compact Antimicrobial Hospital Packs” for people worried about MRSA in hospital, and the methods used in the lab were unable to distinguish “Staph. aureus” – including, but not limited to, MRSA – “from the mostly harmless and completely different Staph. epidermidis[11]

    When Goldacre was writing – November last year, fully fifteen months after the Mirror’s “Mop” story – not one newspaper had retracted its story. I intend to investigate this and the other stories in far more detail, but I hope to have shown that there is at least room for research in the area of media ethics in reporting of medical stories. 


    [1] Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Routledge; New Ed edition, March 29 2002, p27[2] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Cambridge University Press 1986 edition, 1st Meditation

    [3] “The MMR sceptic who just doesn’t understand science”, Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Wednesday November 2, 2005

    [4] S George Philander, Is the Temperature Rising? The Uncertain Science of Global Warming, Princeton University Press,
    Princeton NJ, 1998; p9

    [5] “The MMR sceptic who just doesn’t understand science”, Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Wednesday November 2, 2005

    [6] “MMR crisis could spark measles epidemic”, The Daily Telegraph, 23rd September 2004

    [7] “MMR: the unanswered questions”, Melanie Phillips, The Daily Mail, 31 October 2005

    [8] “Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccine and Autistic Spectrum Disorder: Report

    from the New Challenges in Childhood Immunizations Conference Convened in
    Oak Brook, Illinois, June 12-13, 2000”. Halsey NA, Hyman SL (2001). Pediatrics 107: E84 (full text
    www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/107/5/e84): quoted on www.healthwatch.co.uk,7th March 2002.

    [9] “The Mop of Death”, The Sunday Mirror, 29 August 2004

    [10] “The man behind the Mop of Death”,  Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, October 22nd, 2005

    [11] “After feeding the scare he’ll sell you the solution”, Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, October 29th, 2005

  • Questions so far

    October 4, 2006

    1.  What requirements should be placed on medical/scientific journalists to be educated in their field? Compare British to US scientific journalism.

    2. How should these – and other – requirements be put in place; voluntary regulation, legislation?

    3. Should ethical training be required for journalists?

    4. Should regulation be increased in other areas – i.e. declaration of interests, objectivity/fairness, separation of news and comment? Again, should regulation be self-imposed or legislated? What evidence is there of the effectiveness or otherwise of self-imposed (PCC) regulation, and what are the risks of legislation – might it draw the teeth of the media?

    5. What medical/scientific knowledge and understanding is it reasonable for a journalist to assume of his/her readership? Where is the line between helpful exposition and condescension? How much should it change between publications? Is it true that The Sun is deliberately written for a reading age of nine, and if so should it assume a similar level of expertise in its readers?

    6. Do journalists have a duty to their employers to sell papers? To what extent could sensationalism be justified by that? Or, rather – since it sounds tautological to say that “sensationalism” is a bad thing – when does justifiable volubility become sensationalism? Presumably if there is such a thing as a duty to their employers, then it will require “upselling” stories somewhat or the duty becomes meaningless.

    7. Perhaps the chief question: what is the line between reporting in the public interest and scaremongering?

    8. When should the scientific consensus view be taken at face value, and when should it be questioned? Scientifically untrained journalists should be wary of seeking out controversial views for “balance”, but I believe there are cases when the “establishment” view has turned out to be dangerously wrong – BSE? Asbestos? Were these views supported by the scientific community? A decent-sized section on Popperian scientific philosophy – what is certainty? Can it be achieved? Falsifiability, inductive reasoning, etc – would be interesting and informative.

     9. What responsibilities do scientists and doctors have in reporting their research to the media? Ben Goldacre, the Newton’s Apple Thinktank launch essays, badscience.net, 16th Oct 2006:

    Scientists and doctors, for example, can take care to be clear about the status and significance of their work when talking to journalists. Are the results preliminary? Have they been replicated? Have they been published? Do they differ from previous studies? Can you generalise, say, from your sample population to the general population, or from your animal model to humans? Are there other valid interpretations of your results? Have you been clear on what the data actually show, as opposed to your own speculation and interpretation? And so on.

    It is naive to imagine that such basic guidelines will be heeded by the irresponsible characters on the fringes who produce so much media coverage. However, they do represent best practice, and so they are always worth reiterating: they deserve to be incorporated into codes of practice from professional bodies and research funding bodies.

    “Scientists and doctors would also be well advised to take some even simpler steps: to think through the possible implications of their work, inform interested parties before publication, and seek advice from colleagues and press officers. This advice and more is all covered in the Royal Society’s excellent Guidelines on Science and Health Communication, published in 2001 [3].

    Journals, too, can take a lead, since they often produce the promotional material for research. Risk communication is a key area here, and although it is tempting to present risk increases, and indeed benefits, using the largest single number available (the “relative risk increase”) it is also useful to give the “natural frequency”. This figure has context built-in and is more intuitively understandable: it is the difference between ibuprofen causing “a 24 per cent increase in heart attacks” (the relative risk increase) and “one extra heart attack in every 1,005 people taking it”.

    10. Does freely available, peer-reviewed scientific literature – which should in theory remove concerns about conflicts of interest on the part of the writers – confuse journalists more used to hunting out hidden agendas? A common theme appears to be “this researcher has in the past received funding from Drug Company A; therefore we should distrust his research purporting to show the efficacy of Drug Company A’s new product”. Is this unfair or is there reason to doubt it? Goldacre: http://www.badscience.net/?p=251 “…over the past few years there have been numerous systematic reviews showing that studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry are several times more likely to show favourable results than studies funded by independent sources”. Sinister?

    11. Further to the drug company thing – how widespread is the practice of using charities and friendly media outlets to sidestep advertising standards rules? Who has what responsibility where in that scenario?

    12. How should I decide which articles to use? Presumably won’t be able to use all of them. Is there a way of randomly selecting them? Should I deliberately choose the most distorted pieces or am I then guilty of distortion myself? Anyway. Will need to establish a selection process. Could simply be “the ones that interest me”, I suppose – they don’t have to be representative of a paper’s editorial stance, since the existence of an unsound piece is A Bad Thing all on its own. Hmm. Seek advice.

    13. From Dad: [There are things like] glue sniffing which by consensus just don’t get a mention in the press in an attempt to prevent young people giving it a try. This made us wonder if you should have a chapter on examples of formal and informal agreements like this and their effectiveness.